Akeem Spence Continues Improvement

Akeem Spence (Jack Lyman)

The Fighting Illini defensive line has been playing much better than most expected preseason. Boundary defenders Whitney Mercilus and Michael Buchanan are getting much of the credit, but the stingy defense against the run is tackle Akeem Spence's domain. He is proving his outstanding freshman season is no fluke.

Akeem Spence was a freshman All-American last season, and much was expected of him this year. However, the Illini have played several passing teams to this point, and his role has diminished. He's doing well, but he looks forward to the run-oriented teams ahead on the Illinois schedule.

"I played a lot of snaps, but the passing game isn't really my game. I try to do the best I can.

"I look forward to the Big 10 season. The power-I, the offensive line comes straight at you. That's my game, that's what I love."

There was concern about the pass rush with the early departure of Corey Liuget and the graduation of Clay Nurse. But Spence is excited by this year's pass rush success so far.

"Whitney Mercilus is picking it up a lot, being that consistent guy. Him and Mike Buchanan at the ends. They've really picked it up. Also, I kind of picked it up.

"I feel pretty good. The guys who have to play are playing fast to get back to the level we were last year. When we come out here with fire and energy, we're as good as any defense in the country."

The 6'-1", 305 pound Ft. Walton Beach, Florida, sophomore repeats what other defenders have stated about their motivation for the season.

"At the beginning of the season, they had us ranked the 12th defensive line in the conference. It was horrible. I thought we were better than that. Throughout camp, defensive line had a chip on their shoulder.

"Right now, we're just trying to show we're better that what they say we are. Our guys are coming out hard, trying to get sacks, trying to get to the quarterback. We're trying to make a lot of tackles on the defensive line so we can stand out from the rest."

Can that serve as motivation for an entire season?

"Oh yeah. We're not looking to slow down. We're gonna keep stepping on the pedal."

Does the 6-0 start to the season provide vindication?

"Yes it does. We've been playing great up front. We've just got to keep coming to work every week. We can't take a week off."

Illinois coach Ron Zook says Spence is strong and explosive and has great leverage. He uses that to special effect on the goal line, where the Illini have had their share of success this season.

"My thoughts on the goal line, I try to fire out and get on the heels of the offensive linemen real fast. If they try down blocks on me, I try to beat them to the outside. If I see the ball going the other way, I try to chase it down from the back side."

Spence is one of the team's leaders despite his youth. But an ankle injury at Camp Rantoul and then having to share a spot with Glenn Foster against pass-happy teams limits his leadership ability. He hopes playing run-oriented teams like Ohio State next Saturday will allow him to increase his playing time and therefore leadership.

"Some days when the defense came out sluggish, I really couldn't pick them up because I'm on the sideline. So I can't tell the guys to keep playing hard. I like to lead by example by playing hard. If I'm not able to play, then I can't really say too much."

Zook believes Spence has a bright future.

"He had a big year. Obviously, he needs to pick up the slack for losing Corey. One of the best things about Akeem is he had the opportunity to work with Corey. Corey really taught him the work ethic and the leadership. I've seen him trying to do that.

"I'm proud of him. He's not where he needs to be yet, but he's working hard. I think he has a chance to be a really good player for us."

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